Herbie Hancock & Cecile McLorin Salvant Among 9 Best Moments at 2019 Newport Jazz Festival

Herbie Hancock
Douglas Mason/Getty Images

Herbie Hancock performs during the Newport Jazz Festival 2019 at Fort Adams State Park on Aug. 2, 2019 in Newport, R.I. 

The Newport Jazz Festival may have reached retirement age this weekend (Aug. 2-4), but the American musical institution showed no signs of slowing down. The lineup for the 65th-anniversary edition truly ran the gamut -- agewise and otherwise -- from the classicists, like 90-year-old Sheila Jordan and 13-year-old pianist Brandon Goldberg, to more outré futurists like 95-year-old Marshall Allen and 16-year-old drummer JD Beck. Even headliners Herbie Hancock, Kamasi Washington and Common represented three different, if closely related, ideas of jazz, melding the music’s long history with different amounts and styles of popular music.

If nothing else, the wide range of artists represented was reflected in a more diverse -- at least with regard to age, race and gender -- audience than is usually found at the fairly sequestered Fort Adams State Park grounds (finding affordable housing during the festival around Newport remains a challenge). At times, it seemed as though the festival was underestimating its own vitality, protecting areas with seats or room for lawn chairs instead of creating space for the enthusiastic standing crowds.

But people stood, and even danced, anyway, taking in the inimitable combination of Newport’s spectacular vistas and world-class music over a weekend when the weather was pitch-perfect; the rain held until the last few minutes of Common’s closing set. Below are some of the most memorable moments from a jam-packed weekend.

Sun Ra Arkestra rewriting jazz clichés

The weekend got off to a perfectly off-kilter start thanks to Sun Ra’s singular legacy band -- being the first act of the day didn’t temper their gritty, rough, rich take on the blues (nor did it their distinctive bejeweled ensembles and headdresses). The band incorporated dissonances that made the classic form sound anything but old-fashioned, as frontman Marshall Allen rubbed the side of his hand up and down his alto saxophone to create the most delightful kind of chaos.

Tia Fuller’s infectious optimism 

The veteran alto player turned the Cole Porter classic “I Love You” into a sprawling arrangement that included spoken-word exhortations to a more universal kind of love than the one Porter initially described. Fuller began by singing the tune a capella, and then introduced an easy, stripped-down R&B groove -- complete with supplemental snapping from the audience -- before eventually reaching a bright, swinging climax.

Herbie Hancock crowning the next generation

The 79-year-old legend wore his headlining slot lightly, sharing the spotlight with many of his younger bandmates and even sharing a new composition by remarkable young flutist Elena Pinderhughes that combined non-Western rhythms with an extended Hancock vocoder solo to spectacular effect. His band sounded breezy and light as the nearby waves, but still engaging and totally new. 

Joel Ross becoming the most popular man at the festival

Vibraphonist Joel Ross has been a fixture of the New York jazz scene for several years, and now it's clear his omnipresence has translated northward: He played at no fewer than three sets over the course of the weekend, including as the leader of his own group of young stars called Good Vibes. They wrapped their Saturday afternoon set with the title track from his debut Blue Note album KingMaker, pushing the tune to a teeth-grindingly explosive climax thanks in large part to a relentless solo from saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, and then breaking it down with the now nearly-rote post-J Dilla-style breakdown. But instead of resting in that alluring, stuttering groove, Ross and his band deconstructed it down to its most rarely heard corners.

Dee Dee Bridgewater showing why she’s among the best entertainers of her generation

Talking about the 69-year-old Bridgewater’s vitality feels redundant once you’ve seen her live -- the Broadway and jazz legend has quite simply mastered the stage, a fact she showed once again alongside her Memphis Soulphony at the festival. The singer talked, danced, laughed and, of course, sang with such effortless dexterity that it was impossible to resist her charms. A flawless rendition of Barbara Mason’s “Yes, I’m Ready,” for example, began with a long, vivid story about her own unrequited teen love and continued on into a flawless, evocative version of the song complete with scatting, guttural exhortations and soaring high falsettos, all executed with joy and ease.

Herbie Hancock and Christian McBride having a musical dialogue

“There isn’t a set list so much as a list of things to think about,” said Herbie Hancock early in his performance alongside Newport artistic director Christian McBride and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, just after playing “Witch Hunt” (“Wayne Shorter happens to be my best friend,” Hancock added). It certainly gave the audience plenty of inspiration, as Hancock and McBride had the rarest sort of high-level musical conversation. Grounded by Colaiuta’s support, Hancock showed that even after all these years he’s still finding new and uniquely cogent things to say.

Sons of Kemet getting Newport out of its chair

It took 45 minutes at near-peak intensity, but the British quartet (two drummers, tuba player Theon Cross and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, both of whom have released work under their own names) known for entirely danceable, breakneck grooves (Electric Zoo would be an entirely coherent booking, except that the music is almost all acoustic) finally roused one of the festival’s most sedate stages. For the final quarter of their set, the band’s fevered, crunchy improvisations bred a full-on dance party, with fans of all ages getting in on the fun.

Matana Roberts’ much-needed healing message

The multi-disciplinary artist performed at the intimate Storyville stage, facing an audience that had awoken to the news of two mass shootings in a 13-hour period. Roberts’ solo sets typically split time between verbal storytelling, musical storytelling and improvisation, and audience participation; this time, her exhortations to accept and embrace change combined with the clarion call of her saxophone and her group humming exercises felt like a musical healing. “One more time, because it’s so beautiful,” she would say, instructing the crowd on how to create literal harmony.

Cecile McLorin Salvant pays tribute to a late collaborator

Salvant has earned considerable acclaim for her ability to give old songs new sounds -- or perhaps more specifically, to make listeners think about what they mean in entirely new ways. She usually deploys equal parts knowing humor and relentlessness, exposing the songwriters and the audience by emphasizing lines and phrasing that might otherwise go unnoticed. The tenor of her Newport set, though, was decidedly somber, as she dedicated the performance to her recently passed drummer Lawrence Leathers. Through winking classics like “Devil May Care” and “Nobody Else But Me,” she kept returning to different arrangements of the centuries-old Scottish folk song “Raggle Taggle Gypsies,” often doing dirge-like a cappella interpretations. The weight of the set only added to her still-peerless ability to articulate so many different corners of womanhood -- and thus, personhood -- with intricate, precise and deeply felt renditions of long-established songs.